Climate Heritage Network

BEFS Director, Euan Leitch, reflects on the recent Climate Heritage Network launch and the opportunities it offers.

The Climate Heritage Network was launched on the 24th October in Edinburgh. This is an international network, reflected both in the attendees and the presentations skyped in from around the world. While the launch was a physical event the network is proposed to be virtual, a conduit for information sharing on the role heritage has in addressing the climate emergency. The event was live streamed and the whole day can be viewed online. However, it may be best summed up by an early comment from Alison Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle for the need to “turn heritage from being a victim of climate change to a catalyst for climate action”.

BEFS has endorsed the Memorandum of Understanding, you can join too via their website. BEFS is one of many organisations on the steering committee with a particular interest in contributing to discussions on the legislative imperative required at all levels of governance to address climate breakdown. Other themes the Network plans to gather information on include:

  • Greater public awareness of, and media attention, to connections between cultural heritage and climate change
  • The need for data, correlating cultural heritage to climate impact
  • Demonstrating relevance of arts, culture and heritage to climate action. Examples of successes and challenges faced
  • Addressing the lack of professional methodologies/standards of practice for climate action in the cultural heritage context

The inherent hypocrisy of holding an international event on climate breakdown was best acknowledged by Peter Debrine of UNESCO who spends his working life flying round the world talking about sustainable tourism. It seems inevitable that when individuals speak about reducing global Green House Gas emissions they are required to become ecological saints when in actual fact, if we live in a developed country the chances are that even if we don’t fly or own a car and scrupulously recycle we still consume way beyond planetary means. Large scale structural change is necessary for individuals to meaningfully follow the Geddesian adage “think global, act local”. And it is the needed structural change that leads BEFS interest in the legislative imperative.

The Network has interests in broad cultural heritage but BEFS focus will be on the built component of that, on the sustainable lessons to be taken from historic building methods and perhaps more importantly on the whole life costs of building construction and the embodied energy found in our existing building stock. The climate emergency requires a shift in perspective away from cultural significance as a reason for retaining – it is the reuse of all buildings that will lower greenhouse gas emissions, even when the existing stock is not operating at peak efficiency. At the launch Carl Elefante, 94th President of the American Institute of Architects, well illustrated this in his presentation, modelling whole life carbon costs on reuse versus demolish and rebuild.

Conservation architects have long been practising this and it was positive to receive the following observations from Dr James Simpson, following the event:

I have come to the view that Climate Change is going to be the principal driver of conservation in the coming years. We must:

  • Retain, use and re-purpose as necessary, as much of our existing building stock, including tenements and churches, as we possibly can;
  • Keep new ‘modern construction’ (cement, concrete, steel, plastic etc) to an absolute minimum; and
  • Develop new ways of building which are not massively resource-extravagant and carbon-emitting. This will be informed by the resource-economical and near carbon-neutral nature of traditional building, but will, in other respects, be ‘modern’.

Climate change requires the conservation of structures which are totally devoid of ‘cultural significance’ or ‘aesthetic merit’! This is going to be another interesting conflict to be balanced and resolved!

This is going to be a challenge for everyone, requiring changed approaches in development and conservation, but it is a challenge we must not shy away from. BEFS hopes that engagement with this global network will raise the profile of heritage as that catalyst for climate action, gathering the evidence needed to encourage the Scottish Government to consider introducing policies to create a culture change, driving maintenance, retention, reuse and repurposing of existing buildings, rather than the current default to ignore, replace or dispose of them. We will need your help!

Euan Leitch,

BEFS Director